Doomed to Repeat

Sep 23, 2014 at 12:32 PM

"Okay," I said. "Now I'm mad."

Five years, a virtual lifetime ago. The week before, Alex Smith had returned from a two-year hiatus, and we'd shocked the Texans—though we didn't quite beat them—by abandoning the head coach's outdated offensive approach. We stretched the field, we threw every down, and out of the blue our offense exploded. And I naturally assumed that the coach would be perceptive enough to realize the obvious: Hey, this works. Maybe we'll try to keep this up.

Instead, the next week, we abandoned it. We resumed the coach's boneheaded plodding, which produced a home-run and nothing else. But then, with our two-minute drill at the end of the half, we did it again. We spread out the D, put Smith in the 'gun, and marched down the field for an easy score.

Again I thought we'd notice the difference, but again we packed that offense away. We had 14 points, and even though we were on the road, against Peyton Manning, we were going to sit on those points. And we did. Until, of course, they weren't enough.

"Okay," I said. "Now I'm mad."

Eventually, when the season had all but slipped away, the players spoke up. Vernon Davis asserted that we ought to "take advantage of things we can take advantage of, and if that means spread the ball, maybe we need to do that." Added precocious rookie Michael Crabtree: "That would be good. ... I really can do something in that spread."

"But that's not up to me," Davis observed. "That's up to our offensive coordinator." Who soon thereafter was run out of town, with the head coach following, hot on his heels.

Now here we are. Five years, a virtual lifetime later. Things have changed, and yet, as they say, they've stayed much the same.

A week after Crabtree and Anquan Boldin (and I) essentially begged Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman to open things up, they went out and did it. They stretched the field, with four and even five wide receivers. They went no-huddle. They threw (on nearly) every down. And Colin Kaepernick responded, spectacularly. Perfectly executing perfect decisions, he led a 12-play, 80-yard drive, on which he was 7-of-7 for 61 yards and a score. (And he ran for the other 19 yards.) And then, he did it again, this time with 14 plays on which he was 4-of-5 for 33 yards (and ran for another 25).

With the field stretched, and with his full assortment of deadly weapons, he was every ounce of what he should be: the greatest dual-threat there is.

I naturally assumed that the coaches would be perceptive enough to realize the obvious: Hey, this works. But instead we packed that offense away. We didn't retreat into an old-school run-first shell—Kaepernick had more rushes than Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde combined—but we reverted to more conventional formations, which allowed the Cardinals, who'd been utterly flummoxed by those first two drives, to settle in defensively. And even as the punts piled up, we never truly unleashed it again.

"In the second half," as Kaepernick said, making no secret of his thoughts on the subject, "we ran it [only] here and there."

In other words, we had 14 points, and even though we were on the road, with a defense ravaged by suspension and injury, we were prepared to sit on those points. And we did. Until, of course, they weren't enough.

And again the unraveling began with the refs. But whereas last week the flags were largely deserved, this week the Niners retook their place at the crosshairs of the officials' incompetence. Back-to-back personal fouls for hard hits on the quarterback—both perfectly legal—set up the Cardinals' go-ahead score, and another on Boldin during the Niners' ensuing drive—without an offsetting one for the "inappropriate language" that obviously induced it—scuttled a touchdown and pretty much sucked out the Niners' will.

There's no conspiracy. But clearly, though, there's "confirmation bias," the psychological tendency to interpret things in ways that confirm one's existing beliefs. By now, the Niners' reputation—as hard-hitters who walk right on the line between good and evil—has gotten bigger than any of them. So whereas a Seattle Seahawk—despite his team's actual lawlessness—can simply take a pre-snap stroll into the Broncos' backfield and avoid a flag for being offsides, every call that's even close will always go against the Niners. And as Boldin put it, that crap is certainly costing us games.

With some justification, the Niners have come under fire for failing to stay disciplined. But a person can handle only so much. As the inequity mounts—with each flag gleefully accepted by our opponents, who frankly should be ashamed of themselves—eventually the fight goes out. Out of the Niners, and even, sadly, out of one of their passionate fans.

But our biggest issue wasn't the flags. It was once again our coaches' stubborn reluctance to keep the pedal pinned to the floor. By playing aggressively, by exploiting all their weaponry, they had the Cardinals back on their heels. If they'd simply kept going, they would've won this game in a rout. But, instead, they simply stopped.

And with the season already slipping away, the players are speaking up, again. "We moved the ball well whenever we got five wide," said Boldin, clearly questioning why we ever got anything else. "Whenever we [go with] five wide receivers on the field, teams are going to have a tough time stopping us."

For his part, Harbaugh didn't discount the possibility that the spread might become a regular thing. "Can be, yes," he said. "We showed some real positives out of that set."

That sounds great, Coach, but too much like a lie, a lie I was told five years ago, a lie that I had the gall to believe: "The absolute best thing I saw this week was I saw leadership on the offensive side of the ball in terms of, 'Coach, this is what I think would work. ... Can we do more spread?' To me, that's leadership."

So forgive me, Coach. I never imagined that you'd be anything like the man you replaced. On countless occasions, I've gone so far as to call you a genius. But in this season that feels ever more like it might be the end, I can summon only one reaction.

You're starting to look exactly like him.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Shane
    Webzone Commenter: Big Words, no name though. I thought that was Al Bundy ranting and raving about his 4 TDs in a HS football game cuz that's what makes you know the game of football I guess. But then I saw you didn't sell women's shoes, you were actually a lawyer. Thank you for educating Jeff and all of us on the word acquittal. Also, is a football coach an expert on the constitution? I don't know what your day job is but you may want to even reevaluate that. Jeff, I absolutely agree with your response. Where is all this depth? Give Dial and Tank a shot. Corey L has been awful. Yes the offense NEEDS to open things up, our D isn't what it once was. But I don't think we are going to see it. I expect a heavy dose of run. I hope its enough. 1-3 is ugly.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 8:46 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell "I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Gonna Take This Anymore!" That is one of my all time favorite lines, from Peter Finch in the movie Network. If you want to watch a man go Ape-Shit in seconds, come to my house Sunday, second half of the Niner Game. That guy, Peter Finch, is me!
    Sep 24, 2014 at 4:00 PM
  • Steve
    Might I add to the discontent with the incessant hitch/comeback routes that are either thrown 4 yards or behind the line of scrimmage. They do nothing. Ever. The offensive staff clearly has no concept for yards after the catch. How is a receiver supposed to get downfield if they run five yards, turn the opposite way on the field, and dead stop to catch the ball? Insane.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 12:25 PM
  • chris
    whats the inside scoop on Brad Seely? i haven't read that anywhere. But he has a very good resume as special teams coach and when he came over in 2011 we had the best in the NFL. I'm all for promoting from within!! But as far as promoting from within Greg Roman isn't on the list. he's on the free market in my book, if they go outside i like David Shaw.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 10:20 AM
  • Webzone Commenter
    I disagree with this article and I'm not a idiot. This is still the same crap with people in the liberal media like Jeff Kaplan and Tim Kamawaki trying to bash our coach and run him out of town. I'm sick of it and this displays a total lack of football knowledge. I wonder if Jeff every played football because I played football. High school football. You liberals want to bench Ray McDonald over a accusation! Good thing Harbaugh schooled you on the Constitution. What makes you think you know more about constutitional law than our coach? You probably wouldn't employ Perrish Cox cause you don't even know what a acquittal is. You just hate the fact that our coach is crazy competitive. When will you show him some respect. Right we should just run the same plays over and over until we figure them out! that makes a lot of sense! if you had ever coached football you would know this. Please go back to your day job and leave our team alone.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 9:04 AM
  • The Real Deal
    Best and most accurate 49ers article I have ever read. Anyone that disagrees with it is a stupid idiot who doesn't know a damn thing about this game. Thank You! You truly hit the bullseye on this one. I hope Harbaugh reads it.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 7:11 AM
  • Mike
    two heartbreaking losses...yes... we also started last year on a rough patch...but did ok for ourselves... Being a niner fan for close to 25 years, we have seen better niner teams, but we have also seen much, much worse. The succcess of the last few years has given me enough respect for this organization to give them a bit more slack and not press the panic button just yet. Remember they have to overcome quite a bit; many new faces, team has to gel, settle in, try new wrinkles, and just get some folks back. Let's hold off a bit on these doomsday thoughts just a few more weeks. What ya say? I'm very interested to see how they respond in the Eagle game...I want to see them put up a great fight and hoping for a big win!
    Sep 24, 2014 at 7:06 AM
  • Graeme Pollard
    Excellent article - absolutely right on the money. For the last two seasons we have been persisting with ridiculous play calling and oftentimes terrible clock management. We have the best multi-talented QB by far and a group of pass catchers who can literally win games. So why the hell do we keep punching it into the brick wall??
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:59 AM
  • Scott
    We did have the same record after week 3 last year, lets not forget. Just saying!
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:24 AM
  • Terry B.
    So, Tom, you have to have coached a football game to comment intelligently on football? Well, then you must have coached a lot of games, because you're a football genius. According to you, we couldn't stick with what was working out of a fear they would figure it out. (Of course, figuring something out and being able to stop it are two different things, but we'll ignore that for a moment.) Therefore, we had to switch to something that didn't work and that they figured out right away. And then we had to stubbornly stick to what wasn't working out of a fear that if we switched back to what was working, they might at some point figure it out. Tom, you are indeed a football genius. It's like you have a Ph.D. in football.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:06 AM
  • Big Al
    Harbaugh praised his coaches for the AZ game. He needs a lobotomy and it should be scheduled right after Greg Roman's. "Intelligence" is the word that comes to mind when thinking about Walsh's old offense and play-calling. "Stupidity" defines Harbaugh and Roman perfectly.
    Sep 24, 2014 at 5:59 AM
  • shane
    Jeff, its incredible how history is repeating itself. Interestingly enough the Eagles have been down every game at the half. Talk about a game where we cld be up 28-3 at the half and feel no joy. A friend asked me on a scale of 1-10 how concerned am I. I figured offensively, 2. we have shown flashes of being a really good offense and my gut tells me they will figure this out. they had that great drive in the 3rd till Boldin and Martin got flagged. We can put up points. I have faith. Defensively, I would say 9.5. It seems like the biggest issue is the lack of pass rush. How are all these guys so terrible. QBs have all day to pick us apart and our secondary isn't good enough to cover. I'm not sure we are going to make it 9 games. My prediction is Harbaugh goes run heavy all game to try n slow down the Philly O but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Whatever gets a W. Looks like its going to be week to week.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 8:49 PM
    Response: No question, the D is struggling more than the O, obviously because of the players we're missing. The lack of pass-rush is clearly the main issue. I know that Smith is out, but we were led to believe that (1) there was quality depth behind him (e.g. Lemonier); and (2) Fangio was a Capers disciple who could create a pass-rush through scheme even without top individual talent. Neither of those appears to be true. But what this means is that Roman must get out of his 14-points-is-enough mentality. You can't control for injuries and suspensions. But you CAN control your philosophy. That's why I'm more concerned with the offense; we've got everything we need, and we're choosing not to use it. History repeats, indeed.
  • Phil
    I noticed this trend even last year: the Niners would get off to a strong start and then instead of stepping on the other team's throat, just run the clock, like a boxer who's ahead in rounds just dancing around the ring and letting the clock run. Last year, Niners were able to catch some breaks (Atlanta, at Arizona, Seattle, Green Bay in the playoffs) and win those games, but they haven't gotten those breaks, and in the back of the opponents' minds, they know if they keep pushing against the Niners, sooner or later they can overcome almost any deficit.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 8:16 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Ultimately, what we have learned this year is depth does not win championships. We had how many freaking draft picks this year, which one of those guys is helping us win a ball game this year? Name the last draft pick, excluding the 2011 draft, that has helped us win a ballgame? In 2012 this team was favored over the Seattle Seahawks, as well as the rest of the NFC. Take a look at the 2012 draft for Seattle and the big trade in 2013 for Harvin. That pushed Seattle over the top. We had the opportunity last yr to trade a 2nd rd pick, Thats It for Josh Gordon! This year we could have traded Crabtree and Gabbert to the Texans for Andre Johnson, before the first pre-season game, before everyone knew Gabbert is crap. Baalke doesn't have the balls to make a big trade to get the game changer. The Seahawks did. That's this season in a nutshell. (The last team to win a SuperBowl with depth, 2010 Packers with a rookie secondary...Thats It)
    Sep 23, 2014 at 8:12 PM
  • Tom
    The article was so far off base and lacking any football knowledge it just makes me shake my head the same way I do when the refs make bad call after bad call as if they are doing everything in their power to make a statement with the niners and their very abrasive but very competitive coach. It sure seems to me much of the local media is jumping on the Tim Kawakami bandwagon writing as much bull crap about a coach that did nothing but bring a winning formula to a dreadful team and coaching staff not to mention poor ownership when papa york was in charge. What I see is a bunch of high and mighty agenda-driven writers doing everything they can to get rid of the guy that gives them nothing during press conferences and schools them on the constitution when it was obvious the media wanted Ray's head on "suspicion" of domestic violence. I love the fact that Jim is crazy competitive. He has brought this team to 3 NFC's and has turned around every program he was involved with and in my book this counts for something. He deserves more respect. As far as not running the plays you guys prefer I ask have you ever coached a game before? You can't bring the same stuff, the D will figure it out.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 7:50 PM
  • Victor
    We have outscored every opponent in the first half only to see the lead slip away or have to fight to keep the lead. Harbaugh and Roman need to keep with what is working. A lead is only a lead if you keep producing and the defense gets stops. Kap was near perfect the first two drives last week and could have been all game if they kept the spread offense. Then once the defense commits to try to stop that offense then run it down their throats.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 7:03 PM
  • Jim Harbaugh
    You all will be back on my nuts at the end of the year. Bandwagoneers
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:41 PM
  • John
    Not to worry, Harbaugh will be gone at the end of the year no matter what the 49er record is. Sources inside the 49ers and ESPN have confirmed that Jed York will not offer a new contract to Harbaugh. He is a great coach but has worn out his welcome with the 49er front office. Coach Harbaugh will either be the head coach for the Raiders or the Cowboys for the 2015 season. I am told by sources that the 49ers will buy out the final year of Harbaugh's contract. Brad Seely, the 49er special teams coach, will be the next 49er head coach.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:28 PM
  • Monsterniner
    Harbaugh is still thinking that we have an elite defense that can stop every opponent it faces again and again and he doesn't realize that this year or at least this moment our defense is mediocre at best which means that we need all the points that our offense can score and if our offense can score 42 points in a game we must take them. We don't have an elite defense anymore. In fact, we don´t even have a "bend but don´t break" defense right now but Harbaugh is still thinking that our defense is at the same level of the Seahawks defense.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:21 PM
  • Jim
    I've been saying this about this team. We don't put teams away. We get too conservative when we have a lead. It's costing us games.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 5:10 PM
  • Ninerdawg
    Hey Jeff! Great article! We have been outscored 52-3 in the second half by our opponents, and now we have Nick Foles and the Eagles coming to town. If we lose this game, we can pretty much forget the playoffs. I have no confidence in our pass rush, secondary, or Greg Roman. Do you think Jim Harbaugh will be back next year, and do you think he has lost the locker room like various reports suggest?
    Sep 23, 2014 at 1:21 PM
    Response: I do tend to think that this is it for Harbaugh (see my article after week one), and these comments from star players, questioning our tactics, certainly strike me as signs of dissension. So yeah, things are pretty bad right now. But as we know, winning cures all ills; we'd better hop to it, though, you know?
  • jrouter4949
    Yes, Harbs is looking like Singleminded each year, it's his PRIDE that will be his downfall. The downfall is just around the corner.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 1:16 PM

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